June 24, 2013 12:52 pm

Rohani victory marks Iran’s return to centrist politics

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Election victory demonstrates desperate desire for change
Iranian president-elect Hassan Rohani©Reuters

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rohani

The victory of Hassan Rohani has been greeted as a comeback for Iran’s beleaguered reform movement, decimated after flawed elections in 2009. Above all, however, it marks Iran’s return to the political centre following two decades of tense, at times violent, struggles between reformists and fundamentalists.

The dire state of Iran’s economy and the need to deter foreign threats over the nuclear programme appear to have brought the two disparate sides together as disgruntled Iranians demonstrated through the vote that they were fed up with seeing their welfare sacrificed for a power struggle.

The political turmoil in the wider region may also have played a role, convincing voters to seek change through the ballot box instead of revolting against their rulers.

“This new political current of moderation is very strong, and in it there are secular intellectuals, technocrats, the opposition Green Movement and religious people, who are all very glad to see the country saved from radicalism,” says Hamid-Reza Jalaeipour, a reformist sociologist.

Mr Rohani, a 65-year-old mild-mannered cleric, enjoyed the last-minute backing of reformist and centrist leaders, which helped him emerge as the unexpected winner of this month’s poll.

Although he promised to defend Iranians’ rights for more freedom, he has made clear that his first priority is to help “save” the economy through “reconciliation” with the world and an easing of sanctions.

The populist policies of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the outgoing president, and the tightening of international sanctions over the nuclear programme have led to about a 50 per cent fall in the national currency, the rial, and driven inflation above 32 per cent, while youth unemployment is close to 30 per cent. And that’s according to official figures, believed to be underestimated.

“People decided to prevent the country from falling into an abyss through the safest channel, which was the election,” Saeed Leylaz, a reformist political analyst, says. “What happened [on election day] was like pulling the brake of a fast train which was just about to be derailed.”

Some 73 per cent of Iranians voted in the election and analysts were surprised that so many had cast ballots even though many believed the election was a charade and suspected the regime had picked its winner in advance.

In depth

Iran elections

Iran elections

Iranians are celebrating the unexpected victory of moderate candidate Hassan Rohani in the country’s presidential election

Yet, for many Iranians, the price of the street protests of 2009 was too steep. About 100 people were killed and repression against reformists increased. The two leaders of the opposition movement, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest. As revolts in Arab states nearby spread over the past two years, Iranians feared that an uprising at home would cause widespread turmoil, if not civil war.

“Iranians saw the realities in Syria, Egypt and Libya and chose the ballot box,” Mr Jalaeipour says. He believes that the desire for change has not eased – he says it has, in fact, increased and now encompasses larger sections of the population.

Indeed, the highest echelons of the political hierarchy may have understood the growing drive for reform and therefore given more centrist forces a chance by allowing the results of this month’s elections to stand.

Many fundamentalists in Iran’s several power centres, including in the parliament, have already vowed to co-operate closely with the new government that Mr Rohani will form in August. Iran’s supreme leader and ultimate decision maker, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared to be adopting the same attitude, in contrast to four years ago, when he had insisted that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, rather than his reformist rival, had won the election.

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